Saturday, April 13, 2019

From Columbus to Clinton (1992)

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
From the December 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

All awful things come to an end. This one ended on 3 November with the election of Bill Clinton as leader of what he called in one of his speeches "the greatest country in human history". After a year of endlessly repeated “Gahd Bless America" and pseudo-debates on network TV between toothpaste models posing as politicians, a minority of the US population decided to vote for Big Mac instead of Wimpy. Faced with the choice between capitalism or capitalism they opted for. . . . Capitalism.

The most remarkable thing about the Presidential contest was that neither side addressed the most pressing question of all: How is it that in the richest country in the world nearly a quarter of the workers are living below the government’s own poverty line? In cities like Detroit and New York and Houston vast numbers are homeless, long-term unemployed, without any health insurance and empty of hope. A quarter of all US families (and 70 percent of black US families) have only one parent, and one in three of them are existing beneath the poverty line. 40 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of blacks in the US face official poverty.

In 1970 7.5 million American families lived below the government-defined "near-poverty level" (of $13,700 per year for a family of four or more, in 1992 values); twenty-two years later the number of families living below that level has doubled to 15 million, constituting 44 million workers. Again, in 1970 less than half of US families were bringing in two wages, whereas in 1992 there has been an 11 percent increase in the number of two-wage families (to 56 percent), but still the number facing officially-defined poverty has doubled. Furthermore, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages (i.e. the buying power of workers’ incomes) are falling, so that in real terms the average US wage in 1992 can buy 19 percent less than what it could in 1972. In short, the workers are getting poorer.

Neither Bush nor Clinton were prepared to go beyond rhetoric in relation to the problem of poverty. Bush has a lousy record of neglect for those in need. Following Reagan, his Administration operated on the callous basis that the market would sort out those whose needs should be satisfied. Of course, the market responds to profit and not needs not backed up by purchasing power. Bush has presided over a nation where the public provision of health care has been slashed (in Detroit every single non-private hospital has been closed down and they have been transferring the psychiatric patients to prisons after the state of Michigan decided to cut all welfare expenditure); free education has been discredited (the 1980s saw such cuts in Californian public schooling that now only the most impoverished children are sent to what were once regarded as the best schools in the USA); whole inner city areas have become crime-dominated, drug-infested wastelands (for the first time in twentieth century US history a majority of Americans no longer live in cities) and the level of street violence and murder is rising unstoppably.

In the light of such a dire state of affairs the Republican rhetoric of sickening Christian moralising must have offended a lot of American workers. Clinton was afraid to make anything more than indifferent noises about "change" in relation to the poverty issue because he feared that any talk of helping the most disadvantaged workers would lose him the support of the less disadvantaged wage and salary slaves. Clinton’s campaign exhibited all the lack of commitment or willingness to offend the rich which would make him a prime candidate for leadership in the British Labour Party.

Clinton did not win; Bush fell asleep at the wheel and lost. Clinton’s reputation is based upon the ability to indulge in empty phrasemongering of the "gahd bless you all" variety and a semi-eloquent knack of saying nothing. For example, in an interview in the September issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Clinton spoke of the need for greater American prosperity, then stating "we are going to have to reconcile ourselves . . .  to having a higher percentage of people at lower wage levels". In short, American prosperity under Clinton will mean more workers earning less than they do now. The American workers can look forward to more of the same: falling wages, unnecessary poverty, accompanied by plenty of flag-waving and toothy smiles.

The real Columbus
Of course, 1992 was not only the year of “the greatest country in human history” deciding which hollow grin to be stuck with for the next four years; it is also the year of national celebration of the arrival of Columbus to America five hundred years ago.

Most Americans know less about the real Columbus than they know about Clinton’s shady love life. In Britain the 1492 industry hit rock bottom with the production of the relentlessly unhilarious Carry On Columbus. There has been an ongoing row in the London borough of Lambeth where the local council refused to allow the erection of a Columbus statue outside the Archbishop's Palace because it would be offensive to local black people.

The memory of Columbus should cause offence. The European “discovery" of America as a land fit to exploit was accompanied by one of the most vicious exercises in human annihilation in the history of property society. When Columbus was governor of Espanoia, the first Spanish colony in America, 50,000 natives were killed within the first six months. They were not killed by accident or even neglect, but as a result of a calculated policy of destroying or enslaving the native Indian population whose lives prior to “discovery” had been characterised by communistic sharing and mutual aid.

Central Mexico, with a population of 25 million, ten times that of England at the time of its “discovery”, was reduced to a population of little over a million by the end of the sixteenth century. In western Nicaragua 99 percent of the native population was exterminated: from a population of 1 million to 10,000 in just sixty years. Peru and Chile had a population diminution from over 9 million to less than half a million due to the genocide.

According to Professor David E. Stannard's highly informative book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1992):
  All told, it is likely that between 60 and 80 million people from the Indies to the Amazon had perished as a result of the European invasion even before the dawning of the seventeenth century.
That workers are being asked to celebrate this vast global plunder is evidence of the sickness of capitalist national ideology. While Bush piously tells Serbians to refrain from barbarous nationalist deeds, he and his friends, including Clinton, urge us to commemorate the barbarity of Columbus and the murderous robbers who appropriated America as their own.

The truth is that we have more to learn from and to respect about the native Americans who were killed off (only half a million survive in the modern USA, many still confined to squalid reservations) than from their persecutors. The truth is that a clear line runs from Columbus through to Clinton: the line of ultimate deference to the rights of property, and Gahd bless all those who own it. Socialists want neither their imaginary gods, their lousy flags, their oppressive governments nor their arrogant nationalism. We want a world without nations, states, classes or the curse of poverty. In the struggle to achieve that Clinton is our enemy; he is the enemy of anyone unwilling to succumb to the history tyranny of property.
Steve Coleman

New Realism (1992)

From the December 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
They drove us from the land on which
we fed
into town and city
They starved us lest their bidding we did
to labour without pity 
They drove us from the streets on which
we met
into pub and hovel
They beat us lest our voices we quelled
to listen and to grovel 
They drove us from halls in which we
into suburb and flat
They sent us papers and screens
commending us
to apathy and tat 
They drove the sight out of the world
from our eyes
with censorship and soap
But our eyes still wandered towards the
and lingered yet in hope 
They drove our heads into wired iron
of myth and fantasy
We found ourselves back on the land
in virtual reality.
                                                      Peter Nielsen

The Futility of Reformism (1992)

From the December 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists contend that it is capitalism and capitalism alone which creates all of the major problems in the world today. Poverty, unemployment. crime, war. homelessness and, to a large extent, disease, not forgetting pollution and destruction of natural resources, are all fundamental to capitalism and cannot be solved on any long-term basis whilst this system continues.

Those who support the continuation of present-day society would disagree and claim that capitalism can be changed to solve all, or most social problems, by means of reforms. In fact they would claim that these problems are not problems of capitalism at all but problems that exist, as it were, alongside of capitalism. Each problem has a separate cause (seldom stated) and that therefore it is worthwhile making attempts to improve matters by tackling them one by one whilst retaining capitalism.

Never succeeded
No reform has ever solved a single problem of the capitalist system and none ever will because the pressures of the system are always too much. A reform is not a fundamental change; it is an attempt to alter the way in which capitalism is run. The fundamentals of capitalism are minority ownership of the means of production, the production of wealth for sale on the market, a money economy, a wages system, and the realization of profit from the difference between the wages the producers are paid and the sale of what they have produced. The forms of government and the methods employed to actually run the system are not fundamental but come about through particular historical and other circumstances. Thus Soviet Russia was, and is under another name, a capitalist country. So are China, USA and any other developed country you care to name.

While the fundamentals of capitalism are in existence its nature must remain the same. There must always be a drive for profit and a drive to expand markets which come before any other consideration. Capitalism cannot escape the iron laws of its own economics. Even given the desire to do so from those in power they must follow the laws of the market—or go under, to be succeeded by those capitalists who have a more realistic appreciation of the necessities. The system hangs together as a whole; no one part of it can be taken away.

In the history of capitalism, in every country, hundreds of reforms have been put on the statute books, reams of legislation written, and scheme after scheme have been implemented by all manner of well-meaning people looking to find the solution to the ills facing humanity. Whole industries have been nationalized, then "privatized" to no avail. Government money has been poured into priority areas, only for “black spots” to spring up elsewhere. Housing estates which were erected to ease the housing situation for the working class are now being demolished because they ended in intolerable conditions. An entire scheme of sickness care was set up in this country to cater for working-class ill-health called the National Health Service (they forgot to add ‘‘for workers"—when has a capitalist ever needed a "health scheme”?) The NHS is now in disarray. Endless training schemes have been set up to help young workers find (non-existent) jobs. Way back in 1911 the same problem was confidently going to be solved by the first Labour Exchange set up by Lloyd George.

Why is it that the charity business is booming? There are literally hundreds of charities operating to ameliorate just as many hundreds of ills, yet as fast as they collect money the problems grow. Many, many more examples could be given of reforms which came to grief or ended up creating worse problems which then have to be dealt with. Meanwhile capitalism is growing more and more dangerous and desolating more and more of the world.

For reforms to "succeed” capitalism would need to work smoothly and rationally. But capitalism is a totally anarchic, unco-ordinated system which cannot function in such a way because it only follows one law—the drive for profit. This blows the best-laid schemes of government, planners or reformers apart in its path.

It is quite impossible to achieve a long-term plan for any objective because capitalism is always in some crisis and demands immediate responses to pressures. World events occur with such rapidity that for any country just to try to maintain stability is about as much as they can do. They are so busy swimming against the tide of change that they are using all their strength just to keep their heads above water. They are so busy reacting there is no time to act. So, even if a long-term plan could ever work—and there is no evidence to show that it would and overwhelming evidence to show—that it could not—capitalism is such a dynamic system that it will not stand still long enough to allow such a plan to happen.

Internationally, capitalism has fared no better. All countries face desperate dilemmas in their relationships with other countries. Many stratagems have been put into operation to balance world trade and all have failed. Even if it were possible to devise a financial system which could iron out the tensions in world trade the co-operation of all the major countries would have to be secured. This is impossible because every capitalist country is always following a policy to suit its own interests. Since a major objective is to export more than is imported at any given time, it is obvious that not all can succeed. Add to this the conflicting interests of the multi-nationals and the difficulties encountered in handling lesser developed capitalist countries and it can be seen why reforms of international capitalist relations cannot succeed in harmonizing capitalism on a world basis.

Profits first
Given the nature of capitalism the puzzle is why do political parties advocate reforms and put them forward with every evidence that they themselves believe their absurd schemes will work? It is a mistake to believe that the capitalists understand their own system. They have never studied it in the way that socialists have. Capitalist economists make their reputations, and get their bread, from supplying "solutions" to capitalist problems. What kind of future would a budding Keynes have if he, or she, pointed out that there is really no way of ensuring a stable economy, that the system always staggers on from crisis to crisis?

Capitalists are struggling to survive in business and maintain their competitive edge. To do this they must make sufficient profit to re-invest in capital equipment and keep it up-to-date. This has to be their priority. Anything else comes afterwards. It is not the “wicked” capitalist who brings this about; it is not a moral decision, it is an economic necessity.

Given this as the norm—the everyday face of capitalism— where do reforms fit in? Reforms are basically of two kinds; those that are meant to make the capitalist system run a little more smoothly for the capitalist class and those that are meant to ease the lot of the worker. Neither kind can work because only a fundamental change of social system can make any difference. Reforms are not meant to change the fundamental set-up of capitalism; they are expressly the opposite of that. The most that can be achieved is to ease the conditions of a section of the working class for a time. But as fast as a reform is applied fresh problems are thrown up on account of the changing pressures of capitalism.

So the question remains, is it worth the effort? Why bother? Chasing after reforms is a futile effort, a waste of working-class energy when that energy could be put into something that is worthwhile—working for socialism.
Cyril Evans

Between the Lines: House of Frauds (1992)

Healey and Howe in ermine.
The Between the Lines column from the December 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

House of Frauds
I have long been of ihc view that there is something particularly silly about the British ruling class. All that left-wing talk about how the rulers will prevent a socialist majority from having our way has never carried any credibility. Watching tire Channel Four Cutting Edge documentary on the inside life - life? - of the House of Lords (16 November, 9 pm) was watertight evidence that sanity is no qualification for being in the ruling elite of capitalism.

The rituals of the so-called Upper House, where twelve hundred unelected members can claim five hundred pounds a week for doing a totally worthless job which involves a lot of sleeping, are part of that public school tradition which makes Britain an ex-Empire. The documentary showed the induction into the peerage of two new life frauds. Geoffrey Howe — Thatcher's hatchet man at the Treasury who finally turned the axe on the mad priestess herself — and Denis Healey — who started out in the Communist Party and ended up as the Labour Chancellor who introduced monetarist policies before the Thatcherites ever entered Number Ten.

These social vandals were receiving their pay-off for a lifetime's dirty work of screwing the working class on behalf of the bosses. That is why life peerages are given to politicians and trade union leaders who have served the system well. Most members of the House get there simply because their old man died and they inherited a peerage. Remarkably, the documentary stated that one third of all members of the House of Lords went to just one school: Eton, the place which has huge annual fees and where names of pupils must be signed up soon after they are born. So much for the myth of equal opportunities under capitalism.

But back to the silliness. Watching the absurd rehearsal of their inauguration, where Howe and Healey had to practise putting on and taking off their ridiculous medieval hats and bowing to the Lord Chancellor as they proceed towards him, it became clear that this sort of behaviour would not be out of place in the confines of a psychiatric hospital where disturbed people repeat certain actions with no particular purpose. The parliamentary games are to a great extent about doing barmy things simply because other people have done them before. Those caught up in such a ritual, and benefiting from the payments involved, no doubt think that they are indispensable.

In fact, this documentary was ample proof of the good sense of dispensing with these useless people. Unlike other critics, however, socialists are not simply out to abolish the House of Lords. We want to abolish the entire function of government. This will only happen when lire majority refuses to be governed, to live as inferiors in a class society, and to demean themselves by accepting for one moment that there are superior people who must sit in a special House or Chamber and make decisions for us.

Terry Fields
More Frauds — No Longer In The House
Socialism will be a stateless society without leaders or led. The Cutting Edge documentary the week before the Lords' expose was about the Militant Tendency — in particular, their campaign in Broadgreen in Liverpool to retain their MP, Terry Fields, in the 1992 General Election. As it happens, the Militant members shown on this documentary were exposed as sincere and enthusiastic people whose convictions were worthier, at least on the surface, than the tired old official Labourites who were out to defeat them.

The problem with Militant is that they are a fraudulent body, they pretend to be socialists, but they stand for state capitalism — a repeat of Lenin's failed vanguardist strategy. They claim to be the real Labour Party, even though Labour has expelled them and is embarrassed by them. Terry Fields appealed for support on the grounds that he was the real Labour candidate. His supporters sought votes on the basis of sterile old promises to make capitalism better. Fields lost the election. Of course, he lost in part because he was the victim of a campaign to discredit his leftist stance. But it would be nice to think that he lost also because workers in Broadgreen were unwilling to get excited about left-wing Labourism, were not prepared to give yet another pseudo-radical five years to govern them from the House of Common Thieves in Westminster, that they regarded Fields and other politicians as playing a game that they wanted no part in.

The Socialist Party is hostile to both ermine-clad rulers who like capitalism as it is and reformist MPs who want capitalism with bandages over its worse sores. Neither Etonians nor Leninists, but THE WORLD FOR THE WORKERS!
Steve Coleman